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Why wait on Darfur?

''NEVER AGAIN!" promised Washington, London, Brussels and the United Nations after the massacres in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. But the killing fields of Darfur are more than two years old, and still the world permits innocent farmers, children, and displaced people to be killed and women repeatedly raped. What is to be done?

Despite the presence of African Union military observers, displaced people living in squalid encampments in Darfur and along the western border have been attacked by marauding janjaweed, Arabic speaking militia on camelback. Official Sudanese military helicopters have reputedly strafed villages in support of janjaweed assaults. Soldiers from several armies of the African Union have ''monitored" many of these attacks, but without interfering.

Their limited and constrained mandate and their insufficient numbers (not yet at the 7,000 target strength for a war-ravaged area the size of France) give the African Union effort more of a cosmetic than a meaningful role in damping down the persistent conflict between the government-backed janjaweed from northern Darfur and their prey from southern Darfur.

More than 100,000 Darfurians have been killed since 2003. Nearly 2 million people, pushed out of their homes and fields by combat and the janjaweed, are attempting to survive in precarious huts of palms, reeds, and plastic bags in the dozens of camps in Darfur and along the western border with Chad. The scale of Darfur's human tragedy dwarfs natural disasters and all but the most destructive recent wars of Africa. President George W. Bush has called the mayhem ''genocide." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has used equally strong words. Must the powers of the world merely wring their collective hands, but do nothing?

So far, the big powers and the UN have respected the Sudan's sovereignty and avoided forceful intervention. African Union observers have served as proxies for real action, but they are too few, have little equipment, fuel, and ability to patrol, and have their hands tied by wrong orders. Waiting for the AU to become more robust is a recipe of despair, because of the Sudan's prominent membership in the organization. Given the UN's newly endorsed ''responsibility to protect" norm, much more can and should be done to save lives.

Negotiations between the rebels and the Sudanese government are now into their sixth round. But the talks being held intermittently in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, show no signs of progress. The Sudanese government, having concluded a major peace agreement earlier this year with the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement of southern Sudan, and established a joint government for the entire country, hardly wishes to cosset new separatists in Darfur.

The 22-year war between south and north Sudan, now concluded, was largely over access to petroleum resources. In some respects, because of suspicion that oil will also be found in Darfur, the battles are also more about control of future oil possibilities than about land, discrimination, respect, or local self-government. They are not about religion, for all contenders are Muslims (albeit some are more Islamist than others), nor about language or race.

Petroleum exports, worth about $1 billion a year to Khartoum, provide the national lifeline. They are the military government's only means of support. Cutting off exports, easily done at Port Sudan on the Red Sea by one or two American, British, or French frigates, authorized by the UN, would concentrate the minds of the rulers of the Sudan and presumably compel them to restrain the janjaweed and negotiate sensibly in Abuja.

So would the insertion of NATO or European Union troops into Darfur with a clear mandate not to watch, but forcibly to prevent further losses of life. Annan could and should demand such action before thousands more are killed senselessly across the desert wastes of Darfur.

So far the Sudan has called the UN's bluff. It must not be allowed to operate any longer with impunity.

Why wait? It is true that China, which imports oil from the Sudan, might object. So might Russia, or African nation-states attempting to protect the Sudan.

But the UN General Assembly is now on record in favor of ''protecting" innocent civilians within sovereign countries and within war zones. Local commanders of the AU monitoring force also know that they are making little difference in halting hostilities. They have told their governments they feel powerless and frustrated. Darfur is the place to begin showing that the world cares.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and president of the World Peace Foundation.

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